In this letter HG Mahatma Prabhu replies to a devotee who had an abusive husband and it was becoming difficult for her to tolerate the whims and abuses of her husband and was trying to seek advise.
I am sorry to hear about the way your husband treats you. Whenever I hear of such things, my gut instinct is to tell women not to tolerate this. My intelligence, and experience, also tells me that tolerating such things gives the abusive person the signal that they can continue.
The kind of humility we see exhibited by pure devotees such as Ambarish Maharaj when offended by Durvasa or Haridas Thakur when beaten, would be artificial for us and may get us into trouble when imitated. These great devotees are so humble that even if killed or tortured, do not take offence and they feel it is their fault. They cannot act in any other way.
They see the world different than we do. Although we are told to be tolerant and forgiving, in our stage the external manifestations of that have to be aligned with practical considerations. So, to tolerate minor offences is one thing, but to tolerate continual abuse if it is neither good for you or the person harming you, is in most cases not the intelligent way to respond. In other words, of course we have to be forgiving and tolerate, but we also need to know that externally there are some things that should not be tolerated (just as we do not tolerate injustices such as child abuse, torture, rape, etc. committed to others). Of course, we may tolerate our tendency to respond to these things we acts of violence, but we don’t tolerate our sense of moral justice. That would be the sin of omission.
In the West men get away with less because they do not have the confidence their wives will stay with them if they remain abusive. Once the wife says, “That’s it, I can’t take it, I am leaving if this continues,” such men often realize they can’t get away with what they are doing, or in some cases find out that it is too late to make up for it. At that point they try to change, but usually the wife has no desire to continue, or is afraid to even try.
Another difference with Western men is they will often be willing to go to marriage counselors, whereas many Indian men are in the mood that I am the husband, and therefore I am right and you do what I say. Prabhupada called this arrogance. By even a cursory study of our philosophy you can see that this thinking has absolutely nothing to do with being a devotee. It is male ego out of control supporting by a culture which says basically the man can do no wrong and the wife should just follow.
Okay, the man can do wrong and will do wrong and the wife should still follow. But then he should admit he sometimes does wrong and know that to put a person in a position in which they (the wife are subordinate) means to be an ideal care giving husband. The problem is that men are not controlled. If they were, they would listen and be nice to their wives. They should exhibit some humility as well. A good husband makes his wife happy. An unhappy wife is generally a sign of either a woman who has emotional or mental problems or the sign of a bad husband. I would say the latter is the case in most situations.
So knowing this, you can balance your acting humbly with the reality you are in. Your humility has likely enabled your husband to be abusive. Of course, there may have been no better way for you to act, so you might have considered that being abused is the best thing for the family and thus tolerated it for this reason. That’s is okay as long as you realize that tolerating it was certainly not the best thing, in the long run, for your husband.
In India men can get away with this kind of behavior because they know their wife’s dharma is to follow the husband, tolerate him, and humbly serve him. There is no checks and balances in the sense that the woman can’t go anywhere if she leaves the husband, she can’t support herself on her own, etc. In the West that is not the case, and thus woman normally do not accept a high level of abuse. Because of this many men often change (although some can never change even if it is ruining their families).
Prabhupada advises that a wife is not morally obliged to follow a husband who is not fallen spiritually. I would add “fallen morally” to this category. So generally, if the abuse is not extreme, then yes, forgiving and tolerating is the general policy for a wife. Here dharma is to serve her husband. But if the abuse is extreme, she can still forgive, but she should ask questions like:
What are the options to not taking the abuse?
Will he become worse?
Or will he be rectified if I tell him I will leave him if he doesn’t stop this?
Can I threaten to leave or separate?
i.e. is there somewhere I can go to be away from him to show him I am serious and is this even possible? i.e. what about the kids? (or taking care of parents, etc)
Should I just tolerate this till the kids grow up and then separate until he changes, etc., and again?
Is this practical?
What are the advantages to tolerating this?
Will this help him in the long run if I am compassionate to him?
Is tolerating this bad for the children in the sense that they are learning abusive action and will repeat this in their own lives?
Is tolerating this bad for my husband? i.e. can not tolerating eventually make him realize he must change and force him to learn how to change?
Is tolerating this the best of all options?
Are there diplomatic ways to deal with this to create the best outcomes?
There may be more questions you can ask.
Now, because I don’t know him and don’t know the details, I am only giving general answers based on the principle that we should be forgiving and tolerant internally, but monitor externally if such forgiveness and tolerance is externally helping. Remember that Narada told his snake disciples to raise his hoods but not bite to deal with those who were harassing him.
So if raising your hoods can help, raise them. If living away, perhaps taking a long pilgrimage, can help him realize he is losing his wife and needs to change, do it. If anything can help, do it. If you need to get away to maintain sanity or get more perspective, do it if practical. Make a statement that his behavior is unacceptable and the wife’s duty is not to serve an abusive husband. If he is a “husband” in the true sense, her duty is to serve. In the same way, we serve our guru but if he falls away from bhakti, we do not continue to serve.
But personally forgive him a million times and tolerate because this is the right way to act and to remain sane. But act intelligently to better the situation in anyway you can. That is not a breach of your duty as a wife. I would say that is the essence of your duty.
After analyzing the best course of action, if you determine that tolerating the abuse (as you have done so far) is overall the best course of action, then I think you will find it much easier to deal with, because you would know that anything else would produce an even worse result. But if you determine you can do something differently to make things better, then do it.
I hope this clears things up. No doubt there was some karma from a past life in which you may have abused your wife and if there is still suffering in the stars, you may not find much you can do to better than situation other than pray to Kṛṣṇa to give you strength to deal with this and also ask Him to help your husband. But the problem is that if your husband doesn’t change he will be destined to experience the same pain in the future, in this life, or another, that he is giving you. We just can’t get away with hurting others in the name of being in a superior position. That is entirely non Vedic, although men throw around such ideas in the name of being husbands and husbands being in superior positions.
Hare Kṛṣṇa, Mahatma Das